/ 30 July 2007

SA church shelters Zimbabweans

His name is ”Average” and the story of his desperate flight from the wreckage of President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is an increasingly common one.

The tall 34-year-old, slouching exhausted in a Johannesburg church that has become a de facto transit camp, is one man in a tide of migrants washing up in South Africa.

”There is nothing for me there in our country any more. I had no job and I could not afford anything. Even when I was working life was tough,” he said.

”It’s hard for everyone … I thought it was better for me here,” said the former store clerk, whose dusty jeans and boots tell of a long and difficult journey.

The tale told by Average — whose name is not unusual in Zimbabwe — is depressingly familiar to a people who have watched their once prosperous land spiral into economic disaster.

When Mugabe’s government, facing inflation of close to 5 000%, ordered companies to halve prices of basic goods and services a month ago — effectively demanding that they operate at a loss — Average lost his job as the supermarket chain he worked for cut staff.

Facing the prospect of homelessness and hunger in his own country, he joined the estimated 4,000 Zimbabweans who head south to South Africa, most of them illegally, every day.

Mugabe (83) and in power since the country’s independence from Britain in 1980, has been accused of running Zimbabwe’s economy into the ground while implementing a draconian crackdown aimed at keeping power.

His decision to launch violent seizures of white-owned farms seven years ago is partly blamed for soaring unemployment and the highest inflation rate in the world. Average scraped together his last salary, some money he made from trading sugar bought at a discount from the supermarket where he worked, and funds borrowed from friends to secure a visitor’s visa and bus ticket to Johannesburg.

A friend who promised to meet him on arrival failed to show up, leaving him stranded without a place to sleep.

On Wednesday evening he walked into the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg and joined a long queue of people waiting for shelter and food.

Virtual refugee camp

The church’s homeless shelter has become a virtual refugee camp for 800 to 900 Zimbabweans and a smaller number of migrants from other countries.

”Over the past three years, and more so over the past couple of months, I have noted an exponential increase in the number of people we have from Zimbabwe,” Bishop Paul Verryn said.

Outside his office the line of people waiting for help grew. Many of the new arrivals were asleep in their seats.

”We offer them a place off the streets, where they are protected and have warmth from the inclement streets of Johannesburg,” Verryn said.

At sunset the refugees crowd into the building and lay out reeking blankets.

”People just sleep anywhere they can find a space to sleep. Some people sleep on the steps here, in the corridors and others in the foyer and in the meeting rooms,” said 27-year-old Walter Rusike from Harare.

The commerce graduate and his wife and two children share a meeting room with other families and have been at the shelter for four months.

Average said he hoped to get accommodation for a few days until he finds his friend, work or both.

”I have a diploma in stores management and store control, a certificate in security and a driver’s licence. I think maybe I will be able to find some work with my qualifications. Anything will be better than the situation I was in,” he says. – Reuters